The past few years, we’ve had our kickoff event for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Bedford County in the fall. And it’s been poorly attended. We were going to have one this past fall, but a combination of factors forced us to postpone it until Jan. 31 – but that seems to have been a good thing. The number of RSVPs on the event’s Facebook page is already quite a bit higher than our normal attendance, and I’m sure there are people planning on coming who haven’t bothered to click the button.

But there’s still room for you! Whether or not you’re familiar with Relay, this is a great chance to stop by and have a good time. We will have a hot chocolate bar, and cookies, and kid-friendly games and activities. It will be more of a party than a presentation, although we will, of course, have information available about Relay.

Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s grass-roots fundraising program. The focus of that program in each community is an actual overnight event. Ours will be held June 5-6 at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center. Relay For Life is not a run or a race. The event is held around some sort of oval track (often at a high school stadium, although ours is on a horse show track). Various teams of walkers stay on the track for the duration of the event – in Bedford County’s case, that’s 12 hours, from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday. Each team must have at least one person walking at any given time during the event; that’s what makes it a relay, because team members take turns walking for their team.

The walking is only part of what goes on Relay night. It’s as much a festival as it is a walk. Each team typically operates some sort of concession – food, souvenirs, children’s games or activities or what have you. There are also ceremonies and observances, such as the Survivor Lap which opens the event by honoring cancer survivors, or the Luminaria Ceremony which takes place some time after dark. We encourage the general public, not just team members, to attend.

Teams raise money with their Relay-night concessions, but they also raise money in advance, with group fund-raisers and individual fund-raising by members.

Relay teams can be workplace-based, church-based, neighborhood-based or just a circle of friends. Sometimes, a Relay team is formed in tribute to a cancer patient or in memory of someone we’ve lost to cancer.

If you’re here in Bedford County, go to for more information. Otherwise, go to and search for the Relay event in your area.

And please think about joining us, 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31, at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center.

blue like jazz

I am going to be teaching a new Sunday School class starting later this month at First United Methodist Church. This is being referred to as a young adult class, since I think some of the people who aren’t currently in classes fit into that demographic, but it’s actually open to anyone who wants to attend. We aren’t actively trying to poach anyone from existing classes.

Rev. Lanita Monroe announced from the pulpit a few weeks back that she was looking for people for several different Sunday School classes, including a young adult class. I’d been feeling burned out, for a variety of reasons, with Sunday School, and I’d been missing it more and more often lately. I now think that might have been a God thing. But we’ll see.

I’m re-reading Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which I’d used with a previous, now-defunct class and which I’ve chosen to start out this new  class. It’s one of my favorite books, and one I hope will lend itself to some good discussion. But that will depend on who we actually have in the class.

We’ll also need to find someone I can rely on to take over the class on occasion, since I’ll still get called on as a lay speaker from time to time.

“Blue Like Jazz” isn’t like most other Christian books you’ve read before. (It has a cuss word!) It’s not really a narrative, even though it was turned into a movie (more about that in a second). But there are some sort of storylines to it, involving some time Miller, who was already a college graduate, spent auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which is considered one of the most-secular, least religion-friendly campuses in the nation. But it’s not really a story of Don versus The Atheists; it’s more a story of Don versus Himself, as he struggles to find his own faith, somewhere between the church he was raised in and the secularism that surrounds him. It’s also the story of Don finding a community of friends who hold each other accountable.

I still remember how I came to read the book. Christianity Today excerpted a chapter from it, in which Don and his circle of Christian friends try to decide what to do about Reed College’s Ren Fayre, an annual festival famous for its debauchery. They ended up building a confession booth – but festival-goers who wandered into the booth were shocked when it was Don and his friends doing the confessing. You really have to read the full story.

This Sunday, I’m going to take the chance to go hear my father preach at Mt. Lebanon UMC before the new class starts.

Oh, about that movie: I haven’t seen it yet. I started watching it one night, while I had Netflix, but I got interrupted and never went back. This is ironic for two reasons. As I said, the book is one of my favorites. And the director of the movie was Steve Taylor. Remember Steve Taylor? The musician I was so thrilled to see performing live in November?

As I said, the movie puts a narrative to a book that doesn’t really have one. It also fictionalizes the story somewhat. In real life, Don Miller was a college graduate by the time he started hanging around Reed College. But the movie version of Don is a fresh-faced college student escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing.

Maybe if the class gels, and people enjoy the book, we can have a party and watch the movie together.


Each year about this time, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a celebration at its headquarters and base camp, Cumberland Pines, between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County.

The event serves several purposes. About three-quarters of those in attendance are twenty-somethings who’ve been part of the Mountain T.O.P. summer staff in the past few years. Many of the individual camp staffs become quite close, and this is a great chance for them to reconnect. I love hearing the little squeals every few minutes from the women as some new person enters the room, to big hugs and laughter.

InstagramCapture_1d781efc-6c93-4e1c-9092-f28ce24f0de3Old fogeys are allowed to attend as well: current and former board members, Adults In Ministry campers and other friends of the ministry. I’m a former board member, an AIM camper and (I hope) a friend of the ministry. It’s a reunion for us as well, and tonight I got to see good friends like Jan Schilling, Sonja Goold, Ray Jones, Bob Willems, Reed and Deeda Bradford, and more. (I even got to see Sandy Hayostek, who I actually know through a LEAMIS trip – I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a Mountain T.O.P. event with her before.)

Finally, the event serves as the introduction of Mountain T.O.P.’s theme for the year. Each year, the ministry chooses a theme scripture and accompanying slogan, which is made into a logo. The logo appears on T-shirts, banners and preparation materials, and it’s also used as a theme for various worship services and devotions at camp events.

10903823_10203343271808331_3047647520528749390_oThis year’s theme is “Overwhelmed.” (I stole this photo from Sonja’s Facebook feed; don’t think she’ll mind.) The theme scripture is Psalm 42, and the inspiration was a song by Big Daddy Weave. (I wasn’t familiar either.)

As Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, Rev. Ed Simmons, pointed out, the Psalm itself sounds more like lament than praise. But if you look closely, you realize it’s also about allowing the love of God to overwhelm us when we feel overwhelmed by trouble.

Of course, this year the theme logo will also have to share some of the spotlight with another logo – one we haven’t gotten to see yet. Ed said preparations are still being made for a special logo to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 40th anniversary this year.

Tonight, though, was all about the theme reveal.

Dinner was poppy seed chicken – a Mountain T.O.P. staple for pretty much all of the ministry’s 40-year history, well before I got involved in 1993.

The e-mail invitation had suggested that we wear vintage Mountain T.O.P. T-shirts, although not everyone noticed it. I wore my all-time favorite Mountain T.O.P. shirt. I bought it during my very first AIM camp in 1993, although I think the shirt was actually from a year or two before that.

All in all, a very nice evening, and well worth the drive to and from Altamont.

book update

I am still working, off and on, on the possible self-published book I mused about a few weeks back. For those of you who missed it, I’m toying with taking some pre-existing material like sermons, adding some newly-written material, and self-publishing a book of sort of essays and devotions. I want to at least try putting it together and seeing if it seems like something anyone else would be interested in reading.

And I would use the same avenues I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel, so there’d be little upfront expense.

I’ve picked out a few sermons that I want to turn into essays – and that’s more challenging than it sounds. I have taken down a long essay on faith that I used to have on this site so that I can adapt big chunks of it for inclusion. And I’ve come up with some ideas for original material that I want to work on as well.

A couple of things I’ve worked on are a little too rambliing, and I need to figure out what to do about them. But there are things I’m proud of that I think would work well in print.

I’m in no hurry, but I want to keep working on it so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Come to AIM in 2015

I submitted, and they were kind enough to print, an item on Mountain T.O.P. for this week’s church newsletter. I’ll share it below as well. Mountain T.O.P. has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but its programs are interdenominational, and are attended each year by individuals and groups from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds.
I will also share a couple of videos: My personal video from the AIM event I attended last summer, plus the camp slideshow from that same week. My video, by necessity, only shows things I was present for, which means there’s no footage of home repair. The slideshow is therefore more comprehensive.

Mountain T.O.P. has announced the dates for its Adults In Ministry program for next summer. At the week-long camps, each individual adult volunteer can choose between participating in the home repair ministry or participating in a ministry which serves children and youth.

  • June 7-13, Home repair or Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope is an arts program for elementary-age special needs children; volunteers can either lead a workshop or volunteer to help with workshops led by others. “Special needs” is broadly-defined and includes a wide variety of situations.
  • June 21-27, Home repair or Summer Plus. Summer Plus is a program of enrichment workshops for young teenagers. Workshops can include anything from sports to cooking to crafts. As with Kaleidoscope, you can either volunteer to lead a workshop yourself or to help with workshops led by others.
  • July 5-11, Home repair or Quest. Quest is an adventure camp in which teenagers get to do activities like rafting and rappelling. Adult volunteers work in a support role; they can participate in activities but can skip any activity with which they’re not comfortable.

In the home repair program, teams of about six volunteers spend the week making improvements to the home of a needy individual or family.
Prior experience is NOT required for any of the four programs, and there will be volunteers of both genders and at all skill and experience levels in each program.
2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry, and so the ministry has a goal of recruiting at least 40 volunteers for each of the camp weeks. All of the weeks are held at Camp Cumberland Pines near Altamont in Grundy County.
Getting away on a short-term mission trip can be a time of spiritual refreshment as well as service; the experience of living for a week in a supportive, fun Christian community is a true blessing.
For more information, contact me or go to

Mellow here, mellow there

I had a wonderful weekend in Sevier County with my father and Mrs. Rachel; my brother from North Carolina and his family; and my sister and two of her three children.

We stayed in Sevierville. We had a couple of big family meals together, one of them being at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant on the campus of the Apple Barn in Sevierville. I’d been there once before; it’s fantastic. Great, country-style cooking. They bring wonderful apple fritters and apple butter to the table before your meal, along with a little juice glass of a mixed juice they call an “apple julep.” It’s not alcoholic – although there is a winery at the Apple Barn itself, next door, and I bought a bottle of apple blush, a semi-sweet apple wine with a little grape wine to give it color. I’ll open it up one night this week, and will probably have a glass on New Year’s Eve.

For much of the weekend, we also spent time just going our own way in various groups.

On Saturday morning, my youngest niece Ila had the time of her life fighting dragons at MagiQuest in Pigeon Forge. Her mother Kelly was with her while Michael, Daniel and I were in another part of the building playing miniature golf. MagiQuest was right on the parkway in Pigeon Forge, and we noted that there was a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant right next door. I’d never been to one, but Michael and Kelly had, as had Jacey and Jacob.

Later in the day, we went to Gatlinburg, where I hooked up with Elecia, Jacey and Jacob for a while.

As the sun set, Mike and Kelly said they were going to the Mellow Mushroom for dinner. Jacob and I wanted to join them, while Elecia and Jacey wanted to go to The Island, a big shopping complex in Pigeon Forge, and eat at Margaritaville.

So Elecia and Jacey got off the trolley at The Island, while Jacob and I continued on to a stop at MagiQuest and walked next door.

Here’s the funny part. We had noticed earlier, when trying to figure out which trolley stop we needed, that there are two Mellow Mushrooms in Pigeon Forge, within a very short distance of each other. The one Jacob and I were at, along with Michael and Kelly and the kids, was right on the parkway. The other one was at The Island.

So we were greatly amused, in the middle of our (wonderful) meal, when Jacob got a text saying that Jacey and Elecia had decided  not to eat at Margaritaville because of a two-hour wait time to get a table. Instead, they were eating at … you guessed it … the other Mellow Mushroom.

Google Maps shows the two locations as being 7/10 of a mile from each other.

We all had a big laugh over it.

It was a really wonderful trip, and a great chance to spend time with the family.

rub a dub dub

I learned how to make soap for the mission trip I took to Kenya in 2005, and I’ve made it a few times since – but not in a long while. We never finalized the workshop list for my currently-postponed trip to Liberia, but Debra had mentioned soapmaking as a possibility, and so I’d been meaning to refresh my skills.

Then, a week or two ago, my father asked me if I’d made any soap lately, saying that he liked my homemade soap and was now out.

If I’d been on top of things, I’d have made soap a month ago, so that I could have given it out to everyone at Christmas this week – the soap has to cure for a month, and if something turns out wrong and you have to rebatch it takes even longer.

But Dad’s comment got me to thinking. I bought the cheapest little digital kitchen scale I could find a few days ago, while doing some Christmas shopping. I think the last good one I had was intentionally left with the church on one of my foreign trips. I had a little spring scale, but I didn’t trust it – and soapmaking, as I’ll tell you, is an exact science.

What I do, and what I’ve taught on two or three trips, is cold process soapmaking, which is slightly different from the method your great-great-grandmother might have used. The fats are heated up, partially to melt solid fats like lard or coconut oil but also so that the fats will be the same temperature as the lye solution when the two are combined. Lye is added to water, and it heats up on its own, due to a chemical process. The two liquids are therefore pretty warm when they’re combined, but no further heat is added. Your great-great-grandmother would have made hot process soap, a slightly different method in which the soap mixture is cooked to accelerate the chemical reaction.

The cold process mixture is stirred, by hand or with a stick blender, until enough soap has formed to thicken and emulsify the mixture and keep the oil and water from separating. This thickened stage is called “trace,” and the marker for it is that if you pick up the spoon and drizzle a little bit of the soap onto itself, you can see the line. If you’re stirring only by hand, as with my students in Kenya, this can take 45 minutes to an hour – and you have to stir constantly for the first 30 minutes. If you have a stick blender, it happens a lot more quickly.

Once the soap has traced, you can try adding coloring or fragrances. I say “try” because most coloring agents or scents added at this stage won’t actually take. The soap is still quite alkaline, and will be for weeks, until every last bit of lye has reacted with fat to produce soap. That alkalinity tends to kill off anything you add.

Most homemade soap that has colors or fragrances is “hand-milled” soap. The soap is made without any additives and then allowed to cure completely. Then it’s ground up, or “milled,” and melted down with a little water so that color or fragrance can be added. Hand-milling is a tricky process, and one I have not mastered. I end up with something that looks more like cottage cheese than soap, or else I add too much water and end up with a soupy mess.

By the way, there’s a different hobby called “melt and pour soapmaking” which is an easier version of this. It starts with a special soap base, available at any hobby shop, which has been formulated to melt easily and smoothly (think of it as the Velveeta of soap). You melt it down, then add whatever you like – color, fragrance, exfoliants, what have you – and pour it into molds.

Essential oils have the best chance of surviving when added to newly-made soap, but I had not thought to buy any. I added a little bit of peppermint extract to tonight’s batch, but I don’t expect it to actually survive. I think this will turn out to be fragrance-free, off-white soap.

Once the soap traced and I stirred in the peppermint, I poured it into molds – not the real soap molds you buy at Hobby Lobby, but little Gladware lunch containers that happen to be about the same general shape as a bar of soap.


It will take a couple of days for the soap to harden enough to be taken out of the molds, and then I will have to wrap the bars up in paper and let them cure for a month, on the off chance that there are any little crystals of lye which haven’t yet saponified.

It was fun to make a batch, although I’m always a little nervous when working with the lye. As recommended, I wore safety goggles and gloves. Fortunately, I still had some Red Devil lye left over from my older soap-making days. You used to be able to buy Red Devil, which was 100 percent pure lye and perfect for amateur soapmaking, in any store – it was sold as a drain-opener. But Red Devil stopped selling the product. That may have a liability concern, been because lye can be used in meth production, although the company never said for sure. Now, one has to order lye online by mail.

I have a spray bottle filled with vinegar standing by in case of any stray splashes of lye water or young soap. I also soak all the utensils in vinegar before washing them.

Soapmaking is a fun hobby. Part of the fun is searching for the holy grail of soap recipes. Some oils make a hard bar of soap, others provide more lather, and still others are great for conditioning. The website has a wonderful calculator that you can use to work out a recipe, and it will give you some idea of the resulting soap’s qualities.

Recipes must be followed carefully. You must have at least enough fat to react with all of the lye, but you can adjust the recipe to add just a little bit more, called “superfatting,” in order to give a moisturizing richness to the final product. If you try to add too much, however, your soap bar will be squishy and greasy.

I would like to have used palm oil as part of the mix today, but that, too, has to be ordered online, and I didn’t have any. Tonight’s batch included the cheapest light olive oil I could find (no sense wasting money on extra virgin!), a little coconut oil for lather, and some good old fashioned lard, all from the supermarket. When you first start soapmaking, you’re advised to begin with lard. It’s cheap, always a benefit when you’re learning something for the first time, and it makes a basic, well-rounded bar of soap. Its main drawback is a little bit of pork smell, some of which can even survive the alkalinity of the lye solution.

Some day, I want to try making goat’s milk soap. The goat’s milk is used in place of the water, and it’s supposed to give the soap beneficial qualities.

Another fun recipe to try is gardener’s soap – in which you use brewed coffee in place of the water and add some of the grounds to the recipe as a scrubbing agent.

One thing that all homemade soap has in common is that it’s rich in glycerine, a skin conditioner. Glycerine is a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process – but it’s used in so many other products, from hand lotion to toothpaste, that the big commercial soapmakers chemically extract some of the glycerine from their soap so that they can use it in other products. Homemade soap has all of its glycerine intact.

I hope this batch comes out well. It has continued to thicken after being poured into molds. When I take it out of the molds in a few days I should at least be able to tell if all my measurements and ratios were right. If I had too much lye, the soap will be powdery and crumbly. Too much fat, and it won’t harden up properly and will be soft and squishy. We’ll have to wait and see, and no one in the family will be getting any in their Christmas stocking.

Me, Pat and the governor

In August, Gov. Bill Haslam attended one night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, where he was accompanied on the grounds by State Rep. Pat Marsh.

I had taken a number of photos that night, when Pat — who I’ve known professionally since we were in a civic club together, long before he entered the General Assembly — playfully suggested that since I was always taking photos, I needed to be in a photo him with the governor. I went along, and posed for a photo with the two of them. Someone took it on my T-G camera, and the state photographer who was with Gov. Haslam also took it.

The photo from my camera turned out nicely, and I printed out a little snapshot of it at home and shared it with the family, but I didn’t post it anywhere. Posting a photo of myself with an elected official, of either party, just seemed like a bad idea, even if it was just taken on a whim. People might take it differently than it was intended.

I do not wear my political heart on my sleeve — I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalists to do so. I have always endeavored to be fair to both parties, and I like to think I have good relationships with both parties locally. (I think of myself as a centrist, and I’ve voted for candidates from both parties over the years.) My work should speak for itself, and as long as it does then my private political opinions are my own business. Getting too chummy with one side or the other is just an invitation for people to criticize.

I had the day off work yesterday, but my editor e-mailed me to confirm that I would be in the office at 11 a.m. today, saying only that the reason I needed to be here was “a surprise.”

At 11 a.m., a number of T-G employees were summoned to the front office, where Pat Marsh was waiting with a beautifully framed, and autographed, copy of the state photographer’s photo of him, me and the governor. Pat’s autograph thanked me for being “fair and informative.” It was a very kind gesture; I know the spirit in which it was given, and I was moved by it.

All that is a roundabout way of saying I don’t guess it would hurt too much to show you this:

framed photo

For my out-of-state friends, Rep. Marsh is on the left and Gov. Haslam is on the right. Bill Haslam and his brother Jimmy (now owner of the Cleveland Browns) built a small company started by their father into the Pilot truck stop chain.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.